Glendale school officials are moving to change the district’s voting system from an at-large one to a district-based system to remove the school district from scrutiny under the California Voting Rights Act and the potential for litigation.
The move comes after an attorney gave the school district, Glendale Community College and the city of Glendale notices of intent to sue all three of them because they don’t utilize a district-based voting system, according to Eva Lueck, chief business and financial officer for Glendale Unified.
Kevin Shenkman with the law firm Shenkman & Hughes notified the school district last Dec. 24, she said.
“While we have not been served [with a lawsuit], we have been notified that we are on that radar,” Lueck told the Glendale school board on Tuesday, and described the attorney as “very litigious” on the subject.
Under the current at-large system, school board candidates can run and be elected regardless of their address within the district’s boundaries. A district-based system has candidates vie to represent specific geographic areas.
Glendale Unified is required to change its election system through the city because school board elections are governed by the city charter, which states that “elections are to be at-large,” Lueck said.
The school board will likely vote on a resolution on Sept. 16, seeking City Council approval to place the item on election ballot in April, June, or November, asking voters to approve the district’s transition to a district-based voting system.
If voters support the measure, Glendale Unified could switch to the new system by April 2017, Lueck said.
The California Voting Rights Act aims to protect the voting clout of minority groups by mandating a district-based system in elections where the at-large process dilutes their votes.
“Where we found that this has gone to court, [school] districts have not won, and should you lose in court, the trustee areas are imposed upon you,” Lueck said. “You have no discussion as to how those boundaries should be drawn, and that was part of our desire to move forward.”
Glendale Unified Supt. Dick Sheehan said that Glendale’s main underrepresented populations are African Americans and Latinos.
“Our demographic study showed everywhere we have a large concentration of Latinos, we have an equally as large population of Armenians, and so it would be difficult to draw a boundary that would be beneficial to Latinos,” he said. “However, this is something that we are in dialogue with others.”
Glendale Community College officials plan to discuss the issue soon, Sheehan said.
City spokesman Tom Lorenz said community meetings about the matter will be held in October and November, and will involve groups such as the Glendale Homeowners Coordinating Council as well as the general public.
“Staff will compile information to take back to City Council … so they can made a decision on the direction they would like to see the city go in,” Lorenz said.
Earlier this year, Glendale Community College officials hired a law firm to assist with redistricting issues on an “as-needed” basis.
In February 2012, consultants warned that the college’s at-large system could leave it vulnerable to lawsuits. Nearly six months later, Michael Miller, who was volunteering at the college as a speech and debate coach at the time, filed a lawsuit against the college, alleging the district was violating the voting rights act.
The lawsuit claimed the at-large system “produced a situation in which one highly motivated, politically sophisticated and well-financed ethnic minority group” — identified in the lawsuit as Armenian Americans — “effectively monopolizes membership on the board,” according to court records.
The college’s board of trustees included two Armenian Americans, two members who were white but non-Armenian and one Latina — the same members who are on the board currently.
Miller’s lawsuit was dismissed in 2013 and $802 was awarded in favor of Glendale Community College.
The voting rights act has been a large part of discussion in Anaheim, where that city’s at-large system produced an all-white city council in a community where a large Latino population resides. In November, city officials there will hold an election to ask voters whether or not to create electoral districts.